Is Limited Agency, Agency at all?


Agency can be used deceptively. Advancements may be used to hide deeper forms of social injustice and oppression. One can see this clearly in the right to vote, as the Nineteenth amendment only guaranteed white women this right. For Asian American women, Hollywood has presented no shortage of depictions of Asian American women as “dragon ladies” or submissive and meek. Though it was a great leap for Asian-American women to be represented in cinema at all, this “agency” was very limited. They were directed by white directors and made to act in stereotypical ways, effectively typecasting Asian-American women as a whole. In one of the few roles in which an Asian-American woman is not entirely submissive or entirely dominant, Linda Low and Helen Chao in Flower Drum Song display different forms of agency. In the case of Helen Chao, her “agency” consists of her decision to end her life due to her unrequited love for Wang Ta. In another display of “agency”, Linda Low seems to be in a partnership of equals in her relationship with Sammy Fong, but is ultimately thwarted by cultural demands of filial piety.


In “Love, Look Away!”, Chao dreams of a time in which her and Wang Ta could be together, a scene set distinctly separate from reality through the darkness and barrenness of the scene. Nonetheless, she happily dances with Ta. That is, until Ta is distracted by a mannequin symbolizing passion for Linda Low. Suddenly, the Ta she knew is replaced by menacing men wearing the same clothing as Ta but masks over their faces. The music shifts from a melodic tune to marcato notes. Suspense and tension builds. After running and fighting through the threatening men, she finds Ta and by lifting her feet and clinging to him by his neck, she gives him complete control. Through this control, he promptly lets her fall into an abyss. As she falls, her arms still reach out, as if to symbolize that she never let go of him, even if he literally let go of her. By Ta being the one to drop her, it reminds the viewer that Chao’s love for him is completely unrequited. In the book that the movie is based on, Chao throws herself into the San Francisco Bay. By basing her happiness and willingness to live on a possible future with him that is ultimately shattered, she chooses death.


Linda Low is a different character in many respects. Her utilization of her status as a woman is a form of power, allowing her to have a great deal of control in her relationships. Yet, the moment in which she is happiest is when Fong asks her to marry him. As the two sing of marital bliss, they sink into a dream sequence that contrasts strongly from Chao’s. As they are disrupted from relaxing on bean bags by guests, their calm day erupts into chaos. As Low is busy entertaining guests (although in a different capacity than when she was working at Fong’s nightclub), Fong is busy entertaining women that came to see him. As Low removes them graciously, while shooting a death glare at Fong, the scene continues to fall further and further into colorful disarray with a bevy of interconnected doors. To end the chaos, Low breaks a bottle on Fong’s head and brings him back into the dreamy peace of the beanbag from which they began through her actions. Low does not depend on Fong in the same way that Chao does. While Chao bases her happiness, and ultimately her will to live, on her future with Ta, Low forcefully controls her life, having agency over how the relationship is continuing. However, immediately after the scene where they plot their futures together, it is determined that Fong and Low cannot marry after all, due to Fong’s mother believing that Fong would marry Mei Li. Ultimately, Low’s appearance of agency is only present in the relationship itself, and when extended to include other actors, her agency is almost non-existent. Therefore, any agency that women can gain through relationships with men is ultimately insufficient due to the limited power that can be gained.
Agency must be exercised by individuals as a free choice. By displaying agency in interpersonal relationships as the highest form of agency a woman can attain, it can lull women into thinking that is truly agency. Agency is the ability to make a free choice that is not limited by one’s intersectionality. For Chao, her agency consisted of a choice to end her life, a choice that ultimately was not hers, but Ta’s as he could not return her feelings. For Low, her agency was diminished due to the filial piety that Fong refused to act against. Cultural filial piety effectively stopped her marriage. The appearance of agency can be even more damaging for women than a clearly limited agency. Women might believe Low as a character that owns her sexuality, is confident in herself and in her interactions with males, but ultimately she has little real power to make her own free choices and other characters make these choices for her. Agency, represented through Asian American women that make free, unconstrained choices is not represented by Chao or Low. Flower Drum Song left the representation of Asian-American women and their agency muddled, a non-existent freedom redefined as power.


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